The Illusion of Knowledge

John ArmstrongPersonal

The Discoverers The late historian Daniel Boorstin once said, “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” I have found that Christians are not immune from this obstacle to real discovery. When it comes to teaching from the Scripture and the Christian tradition the real obstacle in people is not ignorance. In fact, a person who knows there is a lot that they don’t know is often very teachable. The issue is really whether or not they want to discover something they do not know. But a person who thinks that already know a great deal has the illusion of knowledge.

When I am asked what the greatest value of a theological education is I always answer, “It shows you just how much you don’t know and how much more there is to learn.” I am prepared to argue that a person can be a great learner, and a great teacher, who has little or no formal training. I am not prepared to say that “self-taught experts” are the real solution to the church’s need for gifted teachers.

Daniel Boorstin also said that America was a “democracy of amateurs, a way of confessing the limits of our knowledge.” But America is now led by a professional class called the career politician. This, in my view, is a major problem with Congress as we now experience it. The results of this professional class arrangement are driving the people further and further from their government. The same is very often true in the typical church. The professional class is the clergy, or the theologians, and they are often there so that the rest of us can feel comfortable when we do not discover anything for ourselves.

As I see it there are two great dangers for American Christians. First, the tendency of far too many is to allow professionals to think for them. If they are comfortable with the teaching of certain professionals they can easily become deluded with a sense of security. But the opposite danger is very real too. A little knowledge can make some people very proud (“knowledge puffs up”). I am amazed at the books and sermons I hear from people who possess a deep sense of self-importance. They are generally given a platform because they have built up a “following” and their followers rarely stop to wonder if their heroes are genuine authorities. These authorities often develop a real unwillingness to discover anything new from serious scholars who are truly gifted teachers.

Remember, the first step to discovery is to remove the illusion of knowledge. Admitting that you don’t know as much as you think is a true gift.